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“The Joy Comes First, The Literacy Comes After” – In Conversation With Michael Morpurgo

The renowned storyteller discusses the recent Somme centenary, shares his thoughts on the EU Referendum – and explains why he believes primary literacy has 'dropped into a black hole…'

Callum Fauser
by Callum Fauser
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If you’re a school teacher, then there’s a good chance that at least one member of your class will at some point have read a book written by Michael Morpurgo.

The author and poet has, by his own estimates, written around 130 books to date, though has also remarked that such numbers ‘don’t count’.

What isn’t in doubt is that they’ve touched the lives of countless readers young and old – particularly his novels set in WWI, which include the celebrated War Horse and Private Peaceful.

While he remains as prolific as ever – busily editing his latest story when I call to conduct the interview – lately he’s also been looking back over his literary career and taking stock of things.

This month sees the publication of Such Stuff: A Story-maker’s Inspiration – an exploration of the tales behind the making of some of his own stories, produced with assistance from his wife Claire and brother Mark. Then there’s the recent launch of a year-long exhibition of his notes, drafts, manuscripts and other artefacts of his creative process at Seven Stories – The National Centre for Children’s Books in Newcastle-Upon-Tyne.

Here, he tells us about the experience of diving back through his archives, his thoughts on the recent Somme centenary commemorations, his concerns regarding the EU referendum – and why current policies on school literacy are putting the cart before the horse…

When sorting through your notes and manuscripts for the exhibition, were there any moments when you discovered something that struck you as particularly powerful or revelatory? Almost all of those early writings come as a surprise – I’m always thinking to myself ‘Did I really write that?’, but there it is, written down on the paper. It was wonderful to see how dreadful the handwriting was when I first began – and how even more dreadful it is now, which means one’s made no progress at all in life, but there we are.

Many of us partly blame technology for that… I don’t do technology. I write by hand and always have done, because that’s how I grew up. I didn’t even like typewriters very much, preferring instead to write my stories down on paper and exercise books.

I did try at one point to use a word processor, but then I lost five chapters somewhere and went straight back to writing by hand. That’s where I’m comfortable. It hurts my hand and arm a bit, but then I’ve got lovely people around me who take my scribbles and transfer them to a word processor so I can then fiddle, tweak and amend them on screen.

It’s not that I’m against technology – I’m just not confident enough with it to use it creatively.

What is your main aim with Such Stuff? What prompted you to go back over those particular stories, and why do so now? It’s intended to show children that this ‘storytelling stuff’ comes from our dreams, as in the Shakespeare quote – ‘Such stuff as dreams are made on’.

I got to thinking about what else I could do that haven’t yet done. My brother Mark comes to a lot of the events and talks that I do, and pointed out after one of them that the question children ask me most often is. ‘How did you got the idea for that story?’ He told me I that always tended to give answers along similar lines, since there’s usually one particular story that got a certain book going – so he suggested we make a book where we take titles of mine that people might know or want to know more about, and then tell stories behind the stories; how I first tumbled on each one, where the seeds came from.

He then suggested that he write the factual history behind each story, because all of them have some historical truth to them. My wife Claire would then choose a piece from each book, so that readers would have an example of the book itself when it was written.

I hope to show children that you don’t have to be clever to do this stuff. What you have to do is to look and to listen; to feel, and then remember and read. Bit by bit you build up what you want to write about, then from time to time something will so possess you that you have to write about it.

You recently accompanied an ITV film crew to the graves to those unknown soldiers at Thiepval, to coincide with this year’s centenary of the battle of the Somme. What impression did the experience make on you? It was the first time I’d been to the Somme, though a lot of the research for War Horse and Private Peaceful came from having previously visited to the battlefields of Ypres.

I was very honoured to be invited – I think they thought that because I’d told many of my stories around that War and the on that followed that I might be a different voice. Not a historian or politician’s voice, but the voice of someone who, to some extent, has lost himself in that world and used it for stories.

The reason I use it for stories is that it upsets me still. I care about it. I care about the people who didn’t come back; the people who lay wounded in their beds forever and a day afterwards; the families who grieved. Why? Because I’m connected to WWII. I’m a child of that war, and grew up deeply affected by how people came out of the trauma.

The depiction of WWI in your books tends to be rooted in the lived of experiences of veterans you’ve talked to and local stories that you’ve chanced upon. In your view, what are the main lessons to be learnt from those stories, and how should they be imparted to younger generations? We’re overwhelmed by the statistics of war. We’re told that around 10 million soldiers died on all sides in WWI. We know that about a million of ours died, 2 million Germans, nearly 2 million French. We know the numbers. In WWII, we think it’s 20 million; in the Holocaust we know it was 6 million.

Yet the trouble with all these millions is that they mean nothing. They just seem enormous. What I’ve tried to do over the years is personalise it, to enable us to think that every single one of those people who didn’t come home was a mother’s son, someone’s father, a brother or an uncle. Someone’s lover. That these were real people.

The vast majority of these people, on all sides, had never been out of their villages or their towns. They didn’t know anything about this enemy called ‘the Germans’ – only what they heard from the newspapers. When you read the names on the graves, see how old they were and where they came from, you see they didn’t just come from this country, but from all over what was then the British Empire.

It’s difficult enough to imagine a farmer’s boy from Devon being sent to the Front – but then you think about a Maori child from New Zealand, travelling thousands of miles across the sea to end up in a trench fighting people he’s never even heard of before – it makes the folly of the whole thing, the utter madness and futility of it, even greater.

The children of today won’t understand it if it’s not about someone they know. We blow the bugles, wave the flags and say ‘We must remember’ – but we can’t. We don’t know them any more, so we have to imagine them.

You’ve been an outspoken commentator on the result of the EU referendum. Is there an argument for schools to do more to encourage political awareness among young people – and if so, how might they go about it? The sad truth is that close to 70% of the youngest voters voted to stay in Europe. To me, that validates enormously what schools are teachers are already doing to provoke discussion and interest in politics. I don’t know whether it’s enough, but it seems to me we already have a more politically aware and caring group of young people than many imagine.

I would say that teachers and schools have done a pretty good job in terms of discussing it. You mustn’t propagandise; you can’t tell children ‘This is how you ought to vote’ – but what you can do is try to broaden their literacy, get them to read widely, ask questions and make up their own minds, based on a broad understanding of themselves and their country and other peoples’ countries, faiths, religions – and of what’s going on in the world

We’re all rather inclined to put down the views of young people as being immature and unsophisticated – but the problem is that this vote was about their lives. They’re the people who are going to have to live with this decision, and it’s been made for them in large part by the older generation. That seems to me to be very unfair.

I worry about the whole business of the referendum. An interesting thing to discuss, I suppose, is how valid is democracy when it’s so based on untruth and deception? I think everyone’s agreed that both sides of the referendum debate spent their time hurling untrue, so-called ‘evidence’ at the population, trying to either frighten them into voting one way, or bribing them into voting the other. It seems to me that we descended into a kind of absurd squabble over something that was actually about the internal politics of one political party.

There’s so much discontent in the land, so much alienation, that many people feel they’ve been left behind, that they don’t belong to this society any more – and I think they’re right. They have been left behind, in their millions, and disenfranchised. This was their opportunity to say what they felt. That doesn’t make the decision right – it just means that a lot of people feel that way.

What are your views on the publication of this year’s KS2 reading and writing tests, and what do they suggest about how the expectations of primary literacy have changed in recent years? They’ve dropped into a black hole. I know so many teachers now who have left the profession because they’ve not been able to teach what they believe in. Literacy has become, like so much else in schools, fodder for the ‘test’ game, whereby teachers have to prove their worth by the results of their children.

Everyone knows that ‘What you can test’ is only a part of what a class, teacher and school should be about, yet it’s become the whole focus. For literacy, that means punctuation, parsing, spelling – which are not unimportant, but I believe absolutely that if you wish to spread a joy of reading, then it has to be done by teachers, librarians and parents who want to pass on that love of reading.

Where is the room in timetables and the curriculum now for devoting half an hour each day to having children enjoy stories? Not answering comprehension questions on them, not testing – just sowing the seeds of a love of books.

Ultimately, what are we trying to do? We’re trying to grow children’s lives, so they can become fulfilled, so they can become more aware. What they learn from books is knowledge, understanding and empathy – but they’ll only do that if they want to read books.

What’s happened over the last 30 years or so is that we’ve put the cart before the horse. The joy comes first, the literacy comes after. Then you have real literacy – children who have been soaked in the poems, stories, plays and drama in which this country is so unbelievably rich.

Such Stuff: A Story-maker’s Inspiration is available now, published by Walker Books; the exhibition ‘Michael Morpurgo – A Lifetime in Stories‘ is on display at Seven Stories until 2nd July 2017

For more information about Michael Morpurgo’s writing, speaking and other activities, visit www.michaelmorpurgo.com

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